Notes on the Culture

1220365397Every Tuesday, Matthew Reed Baker will offer his thoughts on the arts and culture scene. This week: A trip to Ilya Rutman’s violin shop reveals a master craftsman at work; Plus: Mark your calendars for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Boston appearance.

From the outside, it’s a quiet little corner store, its walls lined with the burnished brown woods of violins, violas, and cellos. Burly double basses rest in stands, their brass fittings shining in the sun that streams through the streetside windows.

Sure, Rutman’s Violins could seem a sleepy little salon, but it sits at the intersection of Westland Avenue and Edgerly Road, literally the nexus of Boston’s best professional and aspiring string players—Berklee, the New England Conservatory, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are all footsteps away.

“This is the best location that Boston has to offer for a business like this,” says Ilya Rutman, and now, with the start of the school year and the fall arts season, more and more feet are tromping through Rutman’s doors. Already busy during this summer, he’s bracing himself for the school season, which started just this week and runs through mid-May. When the BSO returns from Tanglewood in a couple weeks, they’ll regularly visit the store—after all, the garage many of the players use is right next door.

But during the hour I spent with Rutman last Friday, the clientele was all students. One Conservatory student comes in with a broken bow and a violin that will need extensive repair: Rutman can fix the bow now, and then the violin after the student has his auditions next week. A pair of parents bring in their young teenage son, who is moving up from a three-quarter-size to full-size cello: soon he’s sitting on a stool and test-driving the merchandise.

An Irish folk student is dissatisfied with the tinny sound of her fiddle: Rutman makes a quick adjustment to the instrument, hands her a new bow, and voilà—a more dulcet tone. The adjustment is free, but she buys the bow anyway.

“My job is to make sure that everybody leaves the shop happy, with a willingness to come back,” says Rutman. “Maybe I do something for nothing, but that’s how I build clientele. We do little advertising…99 percent of our business is word of mouth.”

Rutman and his wife, Marina, built the business from scratch 15 years ago. Once a violinist with the Moldovan Folk Music Orchestra, Rutman immigrated to the U.S. in 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the next year he was enrolled in the three-year violin making and repair program at the North Bennet Street School in the North End.

By 1993, Rutman’s Musical Workshop opened on Route 16 in Newton, where he also sold and serviced grand pianos. Four years later, the Rutmans moved into their current spot—formerly a Brigham’s Ice Cream store—and dropped the pianos for a sole focus on strings.

With every new instrument that comes in, Rutman does a precise thorough tonal adjustment. He carves down the bridge, makes a new sound post, and carefully tests and tunes the strings. This process can take up to two hours per instrument, all so that it sounds as perfect as possible the first time a customer tries it. “Every violin is different,” says Rutman. “Their character is different, the way they look is different. There are no identical instruments—you could never match the wood 100 percent.”

Of course, stringed instruments hardly have identical prices either. At Rutman’s you can get a violin for as low as $525 (he’ll throw in the bow and the bag) or as high as $20,000. A double-bass on consignment is currently going for $1,200, but if you’re interested in a hot not-so-little Italian number he has in stock, it’s yours for $85,000. Of course, if you don’t want to commit yet, you can lease a double-bass for 12 months, at just $75 a month.

That last deal would make a lot of sense for another prospective customer who comes in toward the end of my visit. A thirtysomething man enters with his girlfriend, and as Rutman and I talk, the man walks around the store, staring in awe at every instrument but never asking to touch one. Rutman asks if he can help. It turns out this customer is neither student nor professional.

“Oh no,” says the man sheepishly. “I don’t know how to play. I just love to come in here and look at the instruments. They’re just so beautiful.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to try one out?” says Rutman gently, eyeing the man’s tall, broad-shouldered frame. “You could be a very good double-bass player. You have nice big fingers, long fingers. Come back anytime and you can see how it feels to try one.”

“Oh, no thanks,” the man demurs. “You don’t want to hear the sounds I’d make.” But a dreamy smile spreads across his face, and his eyes continue to take in the room. Maybe not at this moment, but it looks like Boston might get another music student, and perhaps for Rutman, another client.

Enshroud your calendars: Come September 23, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are coming to Boston. No, they’re not coming to cover all of City Hall with a large brown paper bag or layer the Common with vintage Astro-Turf. Actually they’re coming to get an award from the Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation: It’s the eighth annual Negotiator Award and the first given to artists.

Sounds odd, until you think about what it takes to wrap the German Reichstag or install 7,503 Gates in New York’s Central Park. It takes more than oodles of cash (though that helps too)—it takes, well, a great negotiator.

On that Tuesday, the grand-scale installation duo will be at the ICA, discussing their work and how they navigated through the Byzantine morass of local governments and community organizations. (Sound familiar, Boston?)

But until then, you might want to check out this compilation of films by famed documentarians the Maysles Brothers—you’ll see where and how Christo and Jeanne-Claude negotiated well and not-so-well in achieving their singular, vast visions for the past 30-plus years.